Cars, Freedom and the Environmental Challenge of the Suburbs

One of the biggest environmental challenges we face is trying to make the outer suburbs and exurbs more energy efficient. The basic problem is that suburbia requires a car. That is a huge energy consumer and CO2 producer. Lance Mannion describes the problem very clearly:

To the degree that going green sounds like a plan to make us move into cities and give up our cars for bikes and buses Americans will resist and resent conservation efforts, and I suppose that’s how it might begin to sound as soon as the discussion switches from solar panels and fluorescent light bulbs and paper or plastic to mass transit and multiple-use zoning.
The object is to reduce the number of cars driving into and our of cities. This is good for the environment, a boost to our national security as it reduces our dependence on foreign oil, and good for the people who live in and around cities generally. It’s also good for smaller, local businesses.
It’s also a good idea for suburbs to reduce the number of cars on their roads by reducing the need for residents to get in the car and drive. The model should be the inner suburban towns around Boston and Chicago and not the sprawling developments surrounding Los Angeles and Dallas. Again, good for the environment, a boost to national security, good for people who live in these towns, and good for local businesses.
But basically everybody who doesn’t live in a city or the exurbs is excluded from this discussion.
That’s a lot of people.
And I’m one of them.
If I want to take the train into New York City I have to drive 45 minutes to the nearest station and hope that I don’t have to spend another 15 nosing around the parking lot vulturing for a parking space to open up. In 45 minutes I can be in New Jersey on the Pallisades Parkway. In 60 minutes I can see the top of the George Washington Bridge over the trees.
It would be nice if a train still ran from here to the City. I would probably make more trips into Manhattan if one did. But it wouldn’t change the fact that I have to drive 24 miles round trip to work, 24 miles round trip to the doctor’s, 24 miles round trip to the grocery store, 24 miles round trip to Barnes and Noble, 24 miles round trip to church, 24 miles round trip to see a movie—you get the point, and, yes, all those scattered places are 12 miles from our driveway.

Lance’s take on the freedom–or the illusion of freedom–that the car provides is very interesting (italics mine):

The question is, how truly free are we?
Cars free us up in many ways but [they] free us up to live lives that are dependent on having a car.
Theoretically, cars and good highways give us the freedom to live anywhere we want in relation to our jobs, as long as the distance can be covered within a reasonable amount of time, a reasonable amount of time being a subjective and idiosyncratic judgment. And maybe once upon a time they did give a goodly number of people that freedom.

But nowdays, people live where they can find a place they can afford and, if they have kids, that’s near or near-ish to a halfway decent school and accept whatever amount of driving living there forces upon them

Under those circumstances, a car isn’t a means to freedom, it’s a necessary tool of your trade, whatever your trade is, and a necessary living expense. You can’t live where you live without a job, you can’t have the job without the car. Filling the tank and paying for repairs and insurance are as liberating as paying the electric bill and property taxes.
I suspect few people do the calculations and tally up just how much owning a car costs them or if they do they don’t let themselves take in the costs.
It’s hardly liberating to know that you’re shelling out thousands of dollars a year mainly to help keep yourself tied down by your house and your job.
Loving your car for the freedom it promises is like loving your hot water heater for the freedom it promises.

What Lance is creeping up on is what I think might be the greatest–and most politically difficult–challenge facing the environmental movement which how do we reduce the costs from car use. And it’s not just using the car, it’s all the hidden, externalized costs that go into detached housing/automobile based living: everything from the energy and pollution costs of building and maintaining roads, to the amount of land converted to asphalt on the off chance someone might park on it.
So how do we go about fixing this in the long-term? I think we have to think long-term, since we are basically talking about a population shift not seen since the end of WWII. While work patterns have to shift, that, to me, is the easy part–economic incentives can convince many businesses to relocate. The hard part is schooling–and Lance is dead on about the importance of this.
It’s not as simple as saying “fix urban schools.” If they were easy to fix, they would have been fixed by now. It has a lot to do with zoning laws outside of the cities. Thanks to zoning laws, urban areas have turned into warehouses for the poor*. And most people don’t want to send their kids to schools that perform poorly–that is, have lots of poor children**. While this might seem, at first glance, many steps removed from the car problem, unless we make urban areas places people want to live–safe*** with good schools–car culture is here to stay.
Note: Any time I write about suburban areas, some people shut their brains off and enter a full-blown berserker rage, and make blanket, uninformed statements about how horrible cities are. Don’t feed the trolls.
*Along with our rural areas, but that’s a very different matter.
**The tragedy is that many urban systems do better than would be expected, and this includes educating poor children. The problem is that you can’t beat demography: a school system with forty percent of its students in poverty will never perform as well as one with a two percent poverty rate, yet this is seen as a failure of the school system and not our anti-poverty policies.
***While several decades ago, cities were in decline, in many cities, crime is typically confined to a limited portion of the city. I’ve never had to dodge gun fire walking across the Boston Common.

This entry was posted in Automobiles, Education, Environment. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Cars, Freedom and the Environmental Challenge of the Suburbs

  1. Jm Thomerson says:

    I’m out in the country, more or less, seven miles one way or the other to a grocery store. I have 2.3 acres and folks around me have that much or more, so it is pretty much country living. Just down the road is a 2000 house development with 1/3 acre lots. Why would someone want to live on a 1/3 acre lot seven miles from the grocery store?

  2. george.w says:

    My sons are very much enjoying urban living. Everything is close and they spend their time doing stuff instead of traveling to do stuff.
    Disentangling US culture from the assumption that one MUST own a car will be like picking a complicated lock.

  3. Mary says:

    I’ve had exactly the same response as you every time I try to bring this up. And a lot of it comes from the same people who won’t buy a tomato from 20 miles beyond their home, and who want to have all of the BP executives prosecuted. And that’s fine–I’m all for both. But let’s not pretend that our own car usage isn’t contributing to the problems.

  4. Lyle says:

    Unless the local zoning authority blocks it a development that big should draw a local store, its to good a deal to pass up. If it blocks the development its because the developer and or the residents don’t want that type of thing nearby.
    Much of the undertone of this kind of posting assumes that everyone is an extravert and wants to live near a bunch of people. There is a class of people that would like to be near hermits, not hear sirens all hours of the night, not live cheek by jowl with the neighbors so that you can hear their loud music etc.
    In particular in the midwest where a lot of infrastructure exists from when the small towns were bigger. There was a posting today elsewhere about outsourcing to rural Ar. Cost of living is 25% cheaper. (Also a lot less stress, in a small town a dwi makes the newspaper)

  5. Otto says:

    “Safe with good schools” isn’t enough. Without an adquate supply of decent and affordable housing stock (and not everyone is willing to live in a high-rise) and amenities, even urban dwellers aren’t going to abandon their autos. Good mass transit only goes so far.
    I haven’t had a car for 13 years, and I’ve walked to work for 15. In exchange for this relative convenience plus a location where the cats can go outside, I’m going to be renting for the rest of my life (currently to the tune of $1000 a month for 650 pretty crappy square feet) unless I get out of the city.
    Morever, the President’s neighborhood has very little going for it. Twenty-four miles round trip to the doctor? Mon Dieu! I have the same trip to the dentist. In the very best case, on mass transit it takes an hour in each direction and costs $8, as does nearly everything else of interest, with the caveat that the option isn’t available whenever one pleases. The grocery choices are limited enough that I have them trucked in from 50 miles away every two weeks for a minimum premium of $27, and at that interval, naturally a lot of the food is frozen or shelf-stable crap in any event.
    And so forth. Frankly, I’m about ready to start looking for another car. Lord knows the burghers taking advantage of the good schools don’t appear to have cut back.

  6. Moopheus says:

    “The model should be the inner suburban towns around Boston”
    Many of the inner suburbs and semiurbs of this area were developed in the days when people still went around with horse and buggy, and then trolleys that went everywhere. So there were already well established “downtown” business districts before the great post-WWII suburban boom. In other words, before it was assumed everyone would just drive everywhere.
    It’s true–not everyone is going to be able to find affordable, decent housing near the city centers. I feel pretty lucky to have a nice affordable house in Cambridge, in a relatively quiet location. My wife walks to work, I ride my bike. Most of what we need can be gotten to without the car. We pay more for housing but very little for transport. But Cambridge is not a very big city. It can only hold so much.
    But the exurbs, as contructed, are probably just not viable in the long term if they depend on oil-powered cars. Which means a few different things–exurbs that become more like small cities, with centralized business services, and that people live closer to, and that the centers of these cities are connected by better mass transit options. In other words, it’ll be like it was 100 years ago. Heck, in some places, the old trolley track is still there under the pavement.
    I don’t expect this to actually happen. What I expect to happen is that people will continue to insist on using their gas-burning cars to get everywhere until the day they go to the pump and there isn’t any. And then complain that no one provided an alternative.

  7. Snarkyxanf says:

    I’m very introverted (not particularly shy, but introverted). Living in a city is great for introverts—people leave you the hell alone. In small towns, everyone’s all in your business, want to talk to you on the street, etc. In the city, people have constructed norms that allow you to regulate the place and time of socializing. (To be fair, I did grow up in a rural area, and still like to spend my vacations there).
    I’m not sure the cost of living is directly comparable between urban and non-urban places. Some things are dramatically more expensive (square footage of living area), some things are cheaper (transportation), and some things are just different: I can walk to the museums and the library, several kinds of bars (including gay ones if I wished), all things that would have been difficult or impossible to get to in my old home.

  8. Russ Finley says:

    Housing costs are the main barrier to urban living if you don’t want to raise a family in an apartment. I own a home in Seattle. I paid $67,000 for it. It’s now worth ten times that much and sits on 1/8 of an acre.
    And when you look at a breakdown of all sources of GHG in the U.S. you find that cars are a smaller piece of the pie than you might think (about ten percent).

  9. Sharon Astyk says:

    I think one of the potential solutions to the car issue is less about how we design our facilities than how we think about cars. During the 2008 oil price spike, there were lots of stories about people moving out of the suburbs to be closer to work. There weren’t a lot of news stories (and I track them) about people doing the obvious thing – carpooling. Most suburban and rural dwellers live in places where everything is in one or two directions – it is not difficult to establish carpools. But we are very comfortable in our personal car-pods and most people are extremely reluctant to give up that total control “but what if I want to stop on the way home.” The difficulties are hardly insurmountable, but there’s very little incentive to surmount them.
    I don’t find most forms of suburbia or country living to have insurmountable transportation issues – and I live in a rural area. We are car dependent, but we manage with one small car, my husband carpools to work, and we plan our trips so we use less than 50 gallons of gas per person per year. Living in the outer suburbs of Boston as a teenager, my family did not own a vehicle, and my father commuted from one suburb to another. This would not be doable in every community, but it would not be difficult for most people to reduce their driving by half with almost no investment of time or resource – but a considerable investment in attitude shift.
    And that depends on whether there’s a compelling enough incentive. Where I think I would differ with Mike is in the idea that we’re going to have a very long time to shift the social patterns – I think energy price volatility is likely to do some of that shifting for us.

  10. Eric Lund says:

    I live in a small town in New Hampshire and I walk to work. The price I pay for that combination is that I have to have more house than I need, condos being unavailable in this town. I can do everyday shopping (grocery store, drug store, and a few others) without a car, but I need one often enough that it makes sense for me to keep my long-paid-off car.
    As Snarkyxanf @7 says, if you want to live in total anonymity you definitely want to be in a big city so that you have a crowd to blend into. Every small town has its busybodies who will want to know what everybody in the neighborhood is up to, and while your quirkiness may be tolerated, it will be duly noted.
    Russ @8: It isn’t just the driving that makes exurbia eco-unfriendly. Many such areas, especially the ones built in the last 20 years, feature houses that in most circumstances would be considered absurdly large. At the time my house was built (early 1960s), it was definitely upscale, but by the time I bought it several decades later, it was considered a mere starter home, too small for at least one set of potential rival bidders. Total living space (including a room added circa 1987): about 1800 square feet. Many newer houses have twice or more that square footage (which itself is double the typical size of Levittown-era houses). Depending on location and quality of construction, heating and/or cooling such castles can get very expensive and make large contributions to GHG output.
    One important point, which Jim @1 alludes to, is that many of these newer suburban/exurban developments combine the worst of both worlds: high density living far from any amenities. Lyle @4 may be right that whatever passes for a local planning board out Jim’s way may be thinking of attracting a small local store, but the economics aren’t there for only 2000 households, especially in the current economic climate.

  11. BenK says:

    Over the past few years, I’ve discussed with many people the major reason persons living just a few blocks from a good bus stop own a car, even in Boston/Cambridge/Arlington.
    Fear, Doubt and Uncertainty on the part of the mass/public/shared transit user and provider. There is so much friction in that interaction I could write a book on the subject… or at least a long blog post. People own a car because then they have no fear about the availability of the vehicle to start the journey and they ‘feel’ that they control the transportation process. They don’t – traffic, construction, accidents, all play a major role. It’s unsafe, expensive, inefficient, a poor use of time and skills and energy, rough on the nerves – but they feel they do. It does get them from door to door, so that’s a plus.
    There are many ways the public/shared transportation system needs to change before it can compete with cars, emotionally. It needs to run _all the time._ You need to know how much it will cost, that you will get to your destination on time – before you start the trip. It wouldn’t hurt to have the cost sunk beforehand, to overcome the emotions of spending money, and to do it in an obtuse fashion so that nobody really knows how much it costs, but feels that the trip is nearly free, as they do with cars… but maybe that bug/feature should be left out of any new system.
    For the provider, you should know that the customer is really there, that they will really pay, and what they expect in the way of service. You should also know if you can increase your profits – by having multiple passengers, for example – without offending.
    Anyway, the revolution away from cars is achievable and worthwhile, but somebody has to sit down and actually build and operate the information management piece to make it happen. They will make tons of money, but entrepreneurship is hard and many people are personally invested in making this not work (tragedy of incentives).

  12. Mary says:

    For those of you in the Boston area (and that seems to be most of us) I’ve been attending talks at Livable Streets. There was one I attended some time ago that I thought was great–the founder of ZipCar had moved on to found a social networking car share system called GoLoco. If I add too many links I’m sure to wind up in the filer, but you can look for it in my report of that at DailyKos for details on GoLoco and Livable Streets:

  13. Jim Thomerson says:

    The 2000 house development has an elementary school, and perhaps a small shopping center. I haven’t gone over to see. In a way, I am analogous to the poor urbanite who has easy access only to a convenience store. There is one @ 1.3 miles down the road. A six pack of beer is a dollar more there than at the grocery store 7 miles away. So it is a little cheaper for me to buy beer there than make a beer run to the grocery store. Of course, efficient shopping is the answer, but I am out of beer as I type 🙁

  14. clew says:

    “There is a class of people that would like to be near hermits, not hear sirens all hours of the night, not live cheek by jowl with the neighbors so that you can hear their loud music etc.”
    Well, sure, and this class of people lives in the cities too. I’ve lived in several dense urban neighborhoods that were also quiet, because that’s what all the people there valued. (I’ve lived in places where my building was quiet and the neighborhood wasn’t — that is a problem — and I’ve also had terrible noise problems in a rural area, between a gravel mine and explosives-heavy local entertainment.)

  15. Dunc says:

    There is a class of people that would like to be near hermits, not hear sirens all hours of the night, not live cheek by jowl with the neighbors so that you can hear their loud music etc.

    I’m one of them, but I’ve long since learned that I can’t have everything I want. Unless you’re truly filthy, stinking rich (and I’m certainly not), life is a series of compromises and trade-offs. I’ll gladly take the downsides of city life in return for its many compensations.

  16. Vicki says:

    The question about that class of people who want to be near-hermits should be subsidized by the rest of us. On average, gasoline taxes may pay for roads; that doesn’t mean that a good, paved road used only by the few near-hermit families is paid for by those who use it. It’s subsidized by the people driving in denser places (including suburbanites driving to work every day). And that’s even apart from the larger question of externalities.
    I agree with the person who notes that a more reliable and predictable mass transit system would help a lot. When I’m visiting my girlfriend, we cannot use the MBTA website to check bus times to South Station for my trip home, because while the 77 bus runs on Sundays, the website thinks it doesn’t. To some extent, this affects other trips we might make: we know we can’t rely on that website to tell us about buses she isn’t already familiar with, because it lies about at least one of the ones she does know. (Running more buses or running them later costs money; a correct website shouldn’t cost more than an incorrect one.)

  17. Nomen Nescio says:

    i’m lucky enough to live within a half-mile of my workplace. one to two miles gets me to several grocery stores and the local downtown area; weather permitting i can ride my bike anywhere i need to go, on anything like a regular basis.
    but then in winter, the ice weasels come.
    city living is intensely dependent on good infrastructure maintenance, and that’s dependent on the local economy. my town has trouble enough clearing snow off the roads, the sidewalks are noticeably further down their priority list. mass transit here exists, but is so bad as to be near-useless. without a car, i could not survive a winter in my town. without other people’s pick-up trucks and plows, i’d be breaking my back just clearing out my sixty-foot driveway!
    good, reliable, frequent bus service (with some more covered stops, please?) would do wonders. so would sidewalks everywhere there currently aren’t, provided they could be kept snow-free. but i’m not going to get those things, or i would have several years ago already. i’ll have to keep my car — and the next car i buy will likely have four-wheel-drive and more cargo space, as well as being larger and heavier. since i mainly use cars in winter, might as well get one that’ll be handy and manageable in wintertime conditions.

Comments are closed.